Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Bleecker Street releases the film in theaters on Friday, January 28.
The characters in Michel Franco’s “Sundown” are on a luxurious Mexican holiday in which they swim in the clear sea and their private infinity pool, take a regal interest in the local singers and cliff divers, and lie flat out on sun loungers on their hotel suite’s terrace while a waiter brings them their morning margaritas. It’s relaxing for them, but absolutely nerve-frazzling for anyone who saw Franco’s last film, “New Order,” a traumatizingly gory drama in which a high-society wedding turned into a bloodbath, and things got more stressful from there.
Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for trouble to come to this particular paradise, but “Sundown” is quieter and more oblique than “New Order.” It’s smaller, too, in terms of its cast and its scope. That film’s merciless depiction of a city imploding in revolution and counter-revolution thrilled some viewers and offended others, most vocally in Franco’s native Mexico. His enigmatic follow-up is more likely to prompt puzzled conversations about what he’s getting at.
Tim Roth stars as Neil, an unshaven, middle-aged Londoner who appears to be in this tropical resort with his wife and children. Mini-spoiler alert: they’re actually his sister, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and his grown-up niece (Albertine Kotting McMillan) and nephew (Samuel Bottomley). When someone rings them to say that Neil’s mother is at death’s door, the family rushes to the airport, but when they get there, Neil says that he doesn’t have his passport. He sends his sobbing, raging loved ones back to Britain without him, and promises to be on the next flight.
In fact, his passport is in his bag. He seemed to get on well with his relatives, but instead of following them, he takes a taxi to a cheap hotel by the beach in Acapulco, and proceeds to loaf around. When he is feeling energetic, he pads to the sea for a paddle in his flip-flops, shorts, and T-shirt. When he isn’t, he slumps on a plastic chair on the sand, knocking back bottles of cold beer as the waves lap over his feet. If “Sundown” were ever to spawn a drinking game in which viewers tried to match Neil beverage for beverage, it might be fatal.
Between this and Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, there is evidence to suggest that Roth currently picks roles that require him to kick back in scenic locations for a week or two, and who can blame him? But Neil’s motives are harder to fathom. He is happy to exchange pleasantries with a pretty local shopkeeper, Berenice (Iazua Larios), and whenever his grieving sister calls him, he assures her that he is busy trying to obtain a new passport from the British consulate. Otherwise, he says almost nothing. He doesn’t explain himself, and he doesn’t show signs of having any plans that stretch further than the next cerveza. Nor does he seem to be either elated or pained by the deceit. Roth’s expressions range from slightly dazed to slightly drunk, and so, as the days drift by, “Sundown” becomes a liberating blend of mystery and existential deadpan comedy. Some viewers will be exasperated by Neil’s blank, Bartleby-like refusal to justify his behavior; some of the characters certainly are. But it is funny to see someone so content to do nothing, and a film so willing to indulge him. And there is tension, too, especially for “New Order” survivors. Why has Neil abandoned his responsibilities? Is he having a breakdown? And how long can Franco keep us in this limbo?
The mystery is solved by the end of the film, but it would be wrong to give any more clues to its solution here. One of the pleasures of “Sundown” is that it is impossible to guess where it is heading — and it heads in some bizarre directions. But it is fair enough to say that, as in “New Order,” there is violence and social unrest, and there are dealings with the authorities. The twist is that Neil’s detached mood rarely changes, and nor does the film’s. A shooting is given no more emphasis than a game of dominos; imprisonment seems no different from sitting on the beach.
The viewer is kept at a distance from the characters, but that distance is more intriguing than alienating: rather than being in the thick of events, we’re catching tantalizing glimpses of them. Franco has developed a minimalist style which makes his films seem like brief summaries of themselves. He constructs them from short scenes with small scraps of dialogue, with hardly any music or flashy cinematography, so although the pace can feel lackadaisical, he can get through three Hollywood dramas’ worth of events in one low-budget indie drama’s running time. In “Sundown”, the end credits start rolling after 75 minutes, but an astounding amount has happened.
But what does any of it mean? Possibly Franco’s constantly surprising and slightly frustrating film is concerned with the question of whether you can escape your past. Possibly it is concerned with mental health. Undoubtedly it’s concerned with the divide between the rich and poor. One of the few things that Neil says with any conviction is that he doesn’t care about money, but that’s something that only people who have money tend to say.
“Sundown” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.